State of Alabama Sues for Custody of Last American Slave Ship

Sidescan sonar of the Clotilda site (Alabama Historical Commission)

By The Maritime Executive 07-29-2019 10:00:56

The Alabama Historical Commission has filed a federal admiralty claim to take possession of the wreck of the Clotilda, the last known vessel to operate in the West Africa-U.S. slave trade. As part of the filing, the commission calls for any artifacts that may have been removed from the site to be returned to the U.S. Marshals Service for recovery. 

"By preserving the Clotilda, Alabama has the opportunity to preserve a piece of history," said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in a statement accompanying the filing. "It is a prime example of an artifact that deserves our respect and remembrance."

Clotilda's owner used the vessel to illegally transport 109 individuals from West Africa to the port of Mobile, Alabama in July of 1860. Upon arrival, the owner and the master had the vessel towed up to Twelve Mile Island on the Spanish River, outside of the port, where they transferred the captives to other vessels and then scuttled the Clotilda

The location of the Clotilda's wreck remained a mystery until April 2018, when a local reporter found remains of a vessel matching her description outside Mobile. Excavation of the site began in December, and archaeologists dredged up materials that matched the local construction methods and materials used at the time of the Clotilda's launch. The wreck's dimensions and general design matched with only one vessel in archival survey records from the period - the Clotilda.

The court process will give a federal judge jurisdiction over the vessel until the time that a final ruling has been reached. This will give the wreck site the protection of the courts as the comission continues its work to preserve and document the Clotilda. In addition to ownership of the vessel, the commission seeks ownership of all artifacts still aboard (or taken from) the vessel, and the filing seeks to bring any recovered items back into the custody of the state. 

"Interference with ongoing operations and/or future endeavors . . . would be harmful to the public’s interest in this historically significant vessel, as well as create significant hazards to the safe and successful operations at the shipwreck site," the commission wrote in its filing.